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Mar 4, 2012

RIP AVB

With the fondness for a soundbite that characterised Chelsea's first Portuguese manager, Andre Villas-Boas tried to coin his own nickname. "Maybe I should be called 'the Group One'," he said on his unveiling as Chelsea manager. Maybe not. Like Villas-Boas himself, it didn't really catch on. More to the point, it proved utterly inaccurate. The group - its most experienced and influential individuals, in particular - decided he wasn't the one.

While images of the beleaguered 34-year-old looking lonely on the touchline abounded before his Sunday sacking, another picture, designed as a gesture of support, told a tale in itself. When Ramires struck at Wolves two months ago, he headed straight to Villas-Boas to celebrate. So did David Luiz, Jose Bosingwa, Raul Meireles, Oriol Romeu and Ashley Cole. The left-back was odd man out and, after being put on the bench against Napoli, presumably regretted his presence in the stage-managed piece of PR. Subtlety, however, has rarely been Chelsea's forte and this was no exception, convincing few that there was unity in the camp.

It was notable partly for who was not there - the cadre of senior players - but also for who was. Cole apart, they were all either Villas-Boas' signings or his fellow Portuguese speakers. Or, in the case of Meireles, both.

But the loyalists were both too few and their efforts too feeble. Luiz can be a liability, Bosingwa is a right-back with a questionable understanding of defending and Meireles has failed to reproduce his Liverpool form. With friends like those, Villas-Boas may not have needed enemies. He made them anyway.

The last two Chelsea managers to succeed, Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink, were skilled, smiling diplomats with decades of practice at massaging egos. Villas-Boas, in comparison, was the inexperienced technocrat, too rigid in his beliefs and incapable of placating omitted players.

There was a communication breakdown. Villas-Boas favoured the incomprehensible jargon of the PowerPoint generation; his charges - and, in many cases, his peers - preferred a more old-fashioned message.

But while the 34-year-old failed, the fault does not lie solely at his door. The time for change was last summer when he had a mandate and when his reputation was sky-high after an astonishing year at FC Porto. Then he seemed management's wunderkind, not the diminished figure of Chelsea's bleak midwinter. Instead, the club delayed; an owner who can be ruthless in dispensing of unwanted coaches prevaricates and procrastinates rather more when it comes to pensioning off long-serving players.

This time, however, Roman Abramovich's hand was forced; the one occasion he pondered patience, events rendered Villas-Boas' position nigh-on untenable. The unholy trinity of players, supporters and results conspired against him. Normally Abramovich acts before fans have the opportunity to turn on a manager. But not this time, and the dissent that was audible in the 2-0 defeat at Everton illustrated that believers in the 'project', as Villas-Boas insisted on calling it, were decreasing by the day. After Saturday's setback at West Bromwich Albion, they may have only numbered one: an unshaven Portuguese with a penchant for crouching.

The worse Chelsea's results became, the more honest their manager became. Fulsome praise for Albion followed a similar tribute to Everton, the acknowledgement that Manchester City's squad is far superior to Chelsea's and the embarrassing, but accurate, comparison of Fernando Torres to Andriy Shevchenko and Mateja Kezman.

A total of three wins in 12 league games, leaving Chelsea marooned in fifth place, was, Villas-Boas accepted, nowhere near good enough. "Unfortunately the results and performances of the team have not been good enough and were showing no signs of improving at a key time in the season," Chelsea said in their statement. Their analysis was entirely correct.

But having paid £28 million to fire Ancelotti and his backroom staff and lure Villas-Boas from Porto, Chelsea have wasted their money and gone back to square one. The rebuilding job is still bigger for the next manager, who inherits a side with an older spine and which has seen off another manager.

It is becoming the impossible job and, while another huge pay-off should cushion the blow of his sacking, Villas-Boas merits sympathy. Yet if the more generous interpretation of his time at Stamford Bridge can be summed up in four words - right man, wrong time - only the second half of that theory is undoubtedly true. He may have been a poor choice at any point; as a rookie, he certainly was not ready.

It is a tale of player power and the emasculated manager, of high expectations before Chelsea plumbed new depths. Villas-Boas departs Stamford Bridge with a reputation to rebuild and the worst record of any manager in the Abramovich era. In his eight-month reign, 'the Group One' had become very much alone, not so much the mini Mourinho as Chelsea's second Scolari.

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